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Study History - Why Bother?

As a rigorous, traditional, yet non-vocational degree subject History has always been considered a sound educational base for a broad range of employment opportunities. However, in the present economic climate and impending funding cuts to Humanities higher education the subject cannot be complacent as prospective students look at study in more stark economic terms. Graduate employability is high on the government and sector agenda, and an increasing priority for students themselves.

What is graduate employability?

The History Benchmark Statement

What does this mean for developing practice?

"Our students get jobs, indeed they already have jobs, so what's the issue?" "Students are here to gain a greater appreciation of historical analysis and research to develop their abilities as a historian."

Even if employment, or unemployment was not an increasing issue for graduates, employability should be recognised as giving students the capabilities and confidence not just to secure a first job, but to develop over their careers to the best of their capabilities.

The vast majority of History graduates do NOT take up a career in the discipline. An better appreciation of the wider skill set they are developing through their studies is important in enabling 'graduates with impact'. Much of this can be, and already is done within an effective framework that concentrates on academic discipline: incorporating skills and technology to enhance study ... it can sometimes be a matter of making the links more obvious.


What is graduate employability?

The comments above challenge the perception that it is a matter of employability versus education. Employability is enhanced by good learning and can be incorporated without damaging the subject specific dimensions of learning. The key is making students aware of the excellent skill set they are developing through their studies.

A widely-accepted definition of employability discusses the achievement of skills, understanding and personal attributes that make ann individual more likely to gain employment in their chosen occupations (Yorke, 2006).

In a recent Salaries and Vacancies Survey the Association of Graduate Recruiters focused on the issue of skills. The list used has been developed over the years to include most of the skill areas or attributes that employers have sought to a greater or lesser extent: the same qualities are necessary for academic success. The 'top ten' were:

  1. motivation and enthusiasm
  2. Interpersonal skills
  3. Team working
  4. Oral communication
  5. Flexibility and adaptability
  6. Initiative/productivity
  7. Problem solving
  8. Planning and organisation
  9. Managing own development
  10. Written communication

A graduate equipped with these skills is attractive to employers, who repeatedly say that they do not want 'trained' recruits but intelligent, rounded people who demonstrate a wide range of attributes - not least because jobs change so rapidly.

The History Benchmark Statement

Subject benchmark statements provide a means for the academic community to describe the nature and characteristics of programmes in a specific subject or subject area. They also represent general expectations about standards for the award of qualifications at a given level in terms of the attributes and capabilities that those possessing qualifications should have demonstrated. [For the full 2007 history Benchmark Statement visit: ]

The historian's skills and qualities of mind:

i. The ability to understand how people have existed, acted and thought in the always different context of the past. History involves the cultural shock of encountering and sensing the past's otherness and of learning to understand unfamiliar structures, cultures and belief systems. These forms of understanding also shed important light on the influence which the past has on the present.

ii. The ability to read and use texts and other source materials, both critically and empathetically, while addressing questions of genre, content, perspective and purpose.

iii. The appreciation of the complexity and diversity of situations, events and past mentalities. This emphasis is central to History's character as an anti-reductionist discipline fostering intellectual maturity.

iv. The understanding of the problems inherent in the historical record itself: awareness of a range of viewpoints and the way to cope with this; appreciation of the range of problems involved in the interpretation of complex, ambiguous, conflicting and often incomplete material; a feeling for the limitations of knowledge and the dangers of simplistic explanations.

v. Basic critical skills: a recognition that statements are not all of equal validity, that there are ways of testing them, and that historians operate by rules of evidence which, though themselves subject to critical evaluation, are also a component of intellectual integrity and maturity.

vi. Intellectual independence: a History programme is not simply or even primarily a preparation for research in the subject, but it should incorporate the general skills of the researcher, namely the ability to set tasks and solve problems. This involves: bibliographic skills; the ability to gather, sift, select, organise and synthesise large quantities of evidence; the ability to formulate appropriate questions and to provide answers to them using valid and relevant evidence and argument. It should develop reflexivity, ie an understanding of the nature of the discipline including what questions are asked by historians, and why.

vii. Marshalling of argument - in written and oral form drawing on and presenting all the above skills. Such argument should have structure; it should be relevant and concise. In the case of written argument it should be expressed in clear, lucid and coherent prose. Orally it should involve the capacity to sustain a reasoned line of argument in the face of others, to listen, to engage in sustained debate, and amend views as necessary in the light of evidence and argument.

The generic skills acquired through the study of History:

i. Self-discipline;

ii. Self-direction;

iii. Independence of mind, and initiative;

iv. Ability to work with others, and have respect for others' reasoned views;

v. Ability to gather, organise and deploy evidence, data and information; and familiarity with appropriate means of identifying, finding, retrieving, sorting and exchanging information;

vi. Analytical ability, and the capacity to consider and solve problems, including complex problems.

vii. Structure, coherence, clarity and fluency of oral expression;

viii. Structure, coherence, clarity and fluency of written expression;

ix. Intellectual integrity and maturity;

x. Empathy and imaginative insight;




What does this mean for developing practice?

There are a number of considerations and options when providing opportunities for developing employability within the curriculum:

  • Value explicit approaches to promoting employability, such as work-based or work-related learning, where relevance and meaning is clear to students and staff and outcomes easily articulated to potential employers. The Hull History Partnership and Employability in the History Curriculum strands within this project provide innovative examples of the directions this can take.
  • Audit what we already do in the broader curriculum, preferably in terms of the core of a study pathway rather than at the level of individual modules. Most departments would be surprised at just what skill-focused work is already embedded within their programmes.
  • Make sure that the approaches to teaching, learning and assessment that are implemented are consistent with curriculum objectives, not least by creating opportunities that support the sorts of learning we intend to happen. The Assessment of Workplace Learning project is surveying the rigours of assessment within History HE for the first time in the UK.
  • Make sure that students understand the significance of aspects of learning - having a perspective on their achievements and a clear idea of actions necessary for improvement. Students need to understand that the goals of a programme are wider than academic achievement alone, and to appreciate ways in which the wirk they do could support claims to employability.
  • Provide students with opportunities (and support) when reflecting on - and documenting - their achievements inside and outside the programme of study, thereby raising their capacity to represent their achievements to others. It is vital for universities to help them to translate what they do during their undergraduate years into a language that appeals to employers.  

Take a look at ...

Your Degree in History - Making it Work. An online portfolio of resources to support student PDP and employability engagement. 

Benchmarking Partnerships for Graduate Employability. A final project report and curriculum tools from Australia (ALTC Dec 2010)


Approaches to measuring employment circumstances of recent graduates. (HEFCE report Jan 2011)


Employability Audit Tool - a useful developmental tool to help teachers consider and improve the content and design of a course with respect to the issue of employability